REVIEW: Meek’s Cutoff

102 Minutes // USA // Oscilloscope Pictures

dir. Kelly Reichardt : written by Jonathan Raymond
Saturday, September 18th, 2010 – AMC Yonge and Dundas 8 (TIFF)
starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood & Zoe Kazan

In films past, Kelly Reichardt has shown little capacity for deep or even particularly thought-provoking cinema. With both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s films felt more an extension of her (and Jonathan Raymond’s) own personal experiences than anything else; each playing on the idea of finding one’s self and both in somewhat similar terrains. Both have their followings, but both have their dissenters. I am one of those dissidents because I have not lived or have viewed life through the same diminutive, ignorantly introspective scope that she has. But in creating Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt appears to have stepped away from the mirror and has finally decided to draw from all of humanity rather than just herself. In doing so she has produced one of the finest films I’ve ever seen and one which poses one of the few honest questions humanity still asks and will forever ask itself on a daily basis: Be it another person or our own judgment, can we trust anything?

Much to the chagrin of a good percentage of people who will see this film this question goes unanswered. Rather, it will instead ask you to look inside yourself for an answer. To revisit the film in your memory and piece it together as if a mystery in hopes to find a conclusion that will not only satisfy the prose presented by the film, but one that will also help you understand yourself better. Of course those who watch the film and are bothered by the ending have every right to be. Not only does it not conclude the narrative, but it also assigns homework in order to find a meaning rather than have one clearly presented or even prompted in a general way. It can be viewed as a cop out, a pretentious close to give an aimless plot falsely intellectual meaning, but it can also be viewed as a remiss exhibition of how hard life was for your ancestors given further purpose with an age old query. It’s an either/or kind of film that I’m sure will win over more than it will deter, but needless to say this is a must-see for any fan of film.

Set in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff follows three families looking to settle in the then-bare Oregon mountains. With the kind of guy that would pass for folklore in those days guiding them to settlement, the families feel in good hands with Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leading them to pure idle land. But Meek isn’t a virtuous icon of western cinema — he has his prejudices and his faults that make his reputation feel more self-appointed than deserved — and perhaps if the three families weren’t as naive as Reichardt suggests settlers were (which they could be, which I feel they are and which I feel the film expresses delicately and without a patronizing tone) they would have felt an uncertainty of Meek’s value earlier on and seen that he displays more qualities in that of a bandit (his appearance, how he handles himself, how easily he takes a Native captive) than that of a guide.

This is where Bruce Greenwood displays his value in this part priceless to the function and theme of the film. He deceives and on occasion charms us into trusting him with his assured charisma despite any intelligently formed conceptions of him that we have based off his eerie, clandestine manner or other peculiar behaviors. This prevents the three families he’s leading from being at fault in entrusting him with their safety. Then, at the same time he’s manipulating us into believing his character’s “wisdom”, Greenwood manages to convey a deep-seeded vulnerability that earns him our sympathy. That, contrary to the big, almost mystifying talk he entreats open ears to with largess, he too is an empty soul; a man devoid of worth or purpose and one who is embittered by the idea while also fighting to prove himself wrong as if bipolar. Meek’s characterization is one of the finer aspects of this pristine feature and it is something you haven’t seen from either of Reichardt’s two prior efforts. Its complexity works beautifully in contrast to the simple ideas that the film’s importance consist of – creating a wonderful and disquieting tone that anoints the film in a serenely mysterious quality that works excellently with the plot and perfectly the ambiguity of the ending.

Early on in the film, a sense that something is amiss quietly consumes viewers. The families — the White’s, the Tetherow’s, and the Gately’s — are running out of water and will surely die if they don’t locate some soon. Meek has a rough idea of where some is and speaks contumaciously, but by this time the families are filled with uncertainty as to the wisdom of their guide. Soon after, they spot a scout from the Cayuse tribe and against the will of Meek, spare his life and attempt to use him to find water. But they are distrustful of him as well because there is obvious conflict between the natives and the white man, so they tread carefully on his word and hope that their sparing his life will be exchange enough for him to bring them to water.

Amidst all the scrutiny and nervousness that entrenches the band of settlers we learn a lot about them, or at least more than you’d expect given the minimal use of dialogue in the film. The White’s are a very conservative family; they’re the only family with a kid (he idolizes Meek) and care most about their longevity and sustaining a good life in the West Coast. The Gately’s are an extremely young couple – early 20s, but the other families have at least ten years on them – who are in parts ambitious, wholesome and pesky; Thomas (Paul Dano) wants to be a rich man and when they stumble upon a small diamond deposit feels his dream come to fruition, while his wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) draws a lot of comparisons to Alma from Hud, but with a more enduring plight. (Kazan in the role matches, if not surpasses the quality of Patricia Neal’s work in the aforementioned in Meek’s finest performance.) The Tetherow’s have a more interesting husband/wife dynamic with Solomon (Will Patton) being second in command after Meek and sharing thoughts with him more often than not while his wife, Emily (Michelle Williams) finds Meek repulsive and contradicts him in principle. At one point, Meek aims his gun at the Native believing him traitorous. In turn, Emily aims a rifle at Meek to keep him from killing what feels like their only hope in surviving this rigorous terrain. This scene also marks the weary conditions taking their toll on everyone as Emily is as empathetic and endearing a character as Wendy was. To see her take charge of a rifle (no matter how clumsily) and offer a round to the head of another person is an extremely upsetting scene, but in a way absolutely bad-ass.

Thrown into the stew that is the film’s purpose is an early look at feminism, or as Reichardt perpetuates it, “female superiority”. The women in the film each possess radical ideas and earn our favoritism with how they juxtapose to their male counterparts. They’re ascetic and rational while the men are slovenly and selfish. Millie is overwhelmingly sweet and a good thinker while her husband has ideas of grandeur and little logic to his thoughts. Glory is a soft, God-fearing woman, but a loving and staunch mother where her husband William is pernicious and terrifyingly Catholic. Then there is Emily and her conflicts with Meek and her husband. She’s stoic and strong, but shows a kindness to the Native that gives her a thorough humanity and one of the most perfect characters in cinema, whereas Meek and her husband have few positives between the two of them. This would be a detriment to the quality of the film if the seemingly impervious nature of these women weren’t put to an impossible test at the end; a test that corrupts their insight and virtue and makes them nearly as off-putting as their male counterparts. You never would have considered yourself nearly as good as Emily until the final frame where her strength dissolves in front of your very eyes; her strong-minded stoicism melting into a quarrelsome ambivalence about what lay past the rise ahead, a replenishment of life in a body of water or certain death at the hands of a merciless native tribe.

What I appreciate most about Meek’s Cutoff isn’t in its ambiguity or its acting or even its theme – it’s in how unintrusive it all is. There are many films that possess great casts who are great as a collective and are rewarded with loud praise because their performances are so prominent; in this film, while the cast is superb and bereft of a single false note, the actors disappear into their parts and exist rather than command one’s attention. There are just as many films that preach a form of ambiguity with aspirations of resonating with viewers in an unconventional way, and because of the motivation feel contrived, or at worse, false. Then there are films with similar themes – an immediate example springs to mind in 2008’s Doubt – that are not nearly as satisfying because all of the doubt rest within the confines of the film rather than being impressed on the viewer themselves. And, in an even more incredible way, the film manages to keep the emotions and rumination a worrisome and fleeting thing despite the 1:33:1 aspect ratio of the film. And, it is especially wonderful that Reichardt didn’t exploit the gorgeous Oregonian plains with another kind of camera with which to enchant viewers. It is evident that a lot of restraint was used in the making of this film and the end product is a testament to the genius that Kelly Reichardt possesses.

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